For nearly 2,400 years the scroll laid in a cave near Khirbet Qumran high above the shores of the Dead Sea until 1952. The two deteriorating rolls lay side by side on a stone outcropping in the cave hidden, according to records, by a desperate team of holy men seeking to preserve their faith. One, a single sheet of hammered copper, the other larger roll contained two similar sheets riveted together end to end. Their barely visible text pressed into the thin copper teased those that could read it unmercifully. The full measure of the secrets, however, would have to wait.
The Copper Scroll is part of the extraordinary cache of 1st Century documents first discovered in caves at Qumran, popularly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Copper Scroll, however, is very different from the other documents in the Qumran library. In fact, it is so anomalous among the Dead Sea Scrolls – its author, script, style, language, genre, content, and medium all differ to the other scrolls – that scholars believe it must have been placed in the cave at a different time to the rest of the ancient documents. As Professor Richard Freund stated, the copper scroll is “probably the most unique, the most important, and the least understood.”
While most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found by Bedouins, the Copper Scroll, which is now on display at the Jordan Museum in Amman, was discovered by an archaeologist. It was found on March 14, 1952 at the back of Cave 3 at Qumran. It was the last of 15 scrolls discovered in the cave, and is thus referred to as 3Q15. While the other scrolls were written on parchment or papyrus, this scroll was written on metal: copper mixed with about 1 percent tin.
Upon discovery, the metal was heavily corroded and could not be unrolled; it obviously posed a challenge for those wanting to know what was written on this curious find – unique amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. It fell to John Allegro of Oxford University to convince the leaders of the archaeological team to take the scroll with him to England. There, it was most carefully sliced into 23 strips by H. Wright Baker of Manchester University. But when Allegro began to read what the scroll contained, a new enigma was born.
Upon its slicing, it was discovered that the scroll was 30 cm (1 foot) wide and 2.5 metres (8 feet) long. Allegro transcribed it immediately, as well as making a quick English translation. It revealed that the Scroll contained a list of 64 locations, written down in twelve columns. Each entry was a treasure site: there were indications where a large quantity of gold and silver and other precious objects, like jewelry, perfumes and oils, had been hidden. This meant that the nature of the Scroll was not religious, unlike the other material hidden in the Dead Sea caves, but that the Copper Scroll appeared to be a treasure map! This made the document even more enigmatic. For the Dead Sea Scroll collection, an already controversial discovery had just become an even hotter potato to handle!
Ever since its discovery, a number of authors have used and abused the Scroll to make it work for their theory, both within and outside of the academic community. For example, authors Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas in their book “Second Messiah” focus on the Copper Scroll and use it to argue that “at least twenty-four scrolls were secreted below the Temple”, even though the Scroll does not refer to scrolls but precious metals being hidden. Furthermore, at no point does the Scroll reveal that the treasures are below the Temple – though it is a possibility.
But with the Scroll being a treasure map, it was always bound to attract treasure hunters. This was never going to be the bailiwick of academics alone and, in fact, most academics have stayed well clear of working on the Scroll.
The copper scroll was cut into strips and then pieced back together.
“Forty two talents lie under the stairs in the salt pit … Sixty five bars of gold lie on the third terrace in the cave of the old Washers House … Seventy talents of silver are enclosed in wooden vessels that are in the cistern of a burial chamber in Matia’s courtyard. Fifteen cubits from the front of the eastern gates, lies a cistern. The ten talents lie in the canal of the cistern … Six silver bars are located at the sharp edge of the rock which is under the eastern wall in the cistern. The cistern’s entrance is under the large paving stone threshold. Dig down four cubits in the northern corner of the pool that is east of Kohlit. There will be twenty two talents of silver coins.” (DSS 3Q15, col. II, translation by Hack and Carey.)
The treasure of the scroll has been assumed to be treasure of the Jewish Temple. Some scholars have claimed it belonged to the First Temple, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, in 586 BC. However, the scroll has been dated to between 25 AD and 100 AD which suggests that this hypothesis is unlikely.
Other experts have suggested that the treasure could be that of the Second Temple. However, historical records suggest that the main treasure of the Temple was still in the building when it fell to the Romans. It does not rule out this possibility though – a significant portion of the treasures may have been taken away and hidden before the Romans arrived.
There are many though who are not so concerned about where it came from, but much more interested in where it is now. The copper scroll has led to one of the biggest treasure hunts in history, with numerous expeditions setting out to find the valuable hoard.
However, finding the treasure is no easy feat. The locations are written as if the reader would have an intimate knowledge of the obscure references. For example, consider column two, verses 1-3, “In the salt pit that is under the steps: forty-one talents of silver. In the cave of the old washer’s chamber, on the third terrace: sixty-five ingots of gold.” Without a starting point, such directions are meaningless. Furthermore, the treasure may already have been looted by the Romans two thousand years ago and may now be long gone. But this hasn’t stopped the enthusiasts.
As we already observed, a number of expeditions have been mounted to recover the treasures listed in the Scroll. But like most treasure maps, the entries were hard to read. What to make of “In the cave that is next to the fountain belonging to the House of Hakkoz, dig six cubits. (There are) six bars of gold”? We need to know where the House of Hakkoz is, in order to be successful in this recovery. Some are apparently easier to identify: “In the ruin which is in the valley of Acor, under the steps leading to the East, forty long cubits: a chest of silver and its vessels with a weight of seventeen talents.” Acor is believed to be Achor, a valley near Jericho. Alas, ancient sources are unclear as to the precise location of this valley, whether it is north or south of Jericho. Multiply the above two problems by 32, and any treasure hunter – or academic – is confronted with 64 problems: the total amount of treasures hidden.The conclusion drawn by all those who have studied the texts is that whomever the recipient of this document was meant to be, was intimately familiar with the locations described in which the treasures had been hidden, which begs the question why it appears that the entries were made on a copper scroll, to be preserved for a long period of time, and thus under the assumption that recovery of the treasure might not happen in the immediate future. Why did those entering the treasure locations therefore not provide the future reader with more clues as to the sites mentioned?
If the treasure were that of the Jewish Temple, maybe it was meant to be handed down within one or few families – maybe those of the Temple priests? Supporting evidence for this claim is the fact that the Hakkoz family had been involved in the rebuilding of the Temple and the inclusion of their name on this list, definitely pointed towards a Temple connection. But it is far from making perfect sense, including as to how the scroll finally ended up in a cave near the Dead Sea!But the contents listed in the Copper Scroll are actually a serious problem. Indeed, if taken literally, the amount of gold and silver listed in the Scroll is extraordinary when we compare it with the amounts ever smelted up to that time by our ancestors! Only 160 tonnes of gold were mined across the Old World up until 1 AD, meaning that the Copper Scroll accounted for a fourth of the total gold in existence. 65 tonnes of silver is the entire stock the entire world had ever mined, and the Copper Scroll therefore lists almost a third of the world’s stock! It is unlikely that an ascetic sect accumulated all of this on their own. In short, it is impossible that the quantities of gold and silver listed, is correct.
In trying to address this issue, British metallurgist Robert Feather proposed that the units of measurement were Egyptian. The unit of weight given as K is generally assumed to refer to the Biblical Talent, which is ca. 76lb (or 35 kg). But the ancient Egyptians developed a system of weights specifically for precious metals, specifically copper, god and silver, based on the “kite”, or qedet, with a weight of 9 to 10 grams. This would mean that the scrolls’ inventory would add up to 26 kilograms (57 lb) of gold and 14 kilograms (30 lb) of silver – a far more reasonable, yet still substantial amount of money, worth ca. 1 million dollar of gold and 10,000 dollar of silver.
However, why a community at the Dead Sea Scroll would use this Egyptian unit, which was also stopped in ca. 500 BC, poses an initial problem. Feather, however, found references to suggest that the Copper Scroll, though dated between to 150 BC and 70 AD, might instead have been a copy of an older document. John Elwolde has noted there are passages in the Scroll that correspond to early Biblical Hebrew (800-700 BC), therefore within the timeframe when the Egyptian kite was still used.
Feather further notes that the use of copper for writing was unknown in Judaea at the time of, or before, the Qumram community. However, copper scrolls were used for writing by the ancient Egyptians (even tough it was far from common). One Egyptian copper scrolls was found at Medinet Habu, dating from the Roman period; another one exists from the lifetime of Ramses III (ca. 1156 BC). Indeed, Egypt was in fact the only known place where copper was used for writing!Furthermore, the Copper Scroll is made from very pure copper (99.9%), with traces of tin, iron and arsenic – almost identical to the chemical composition of copper as used in Egypt during the 18th dynasty. Feather is convinced that the copper from the Copper Scroll came from a piece of Egyptian copper, similar to those once in the possession of Ramses III. Somehow – and so far inexplicably – centuries after the ancient Egyptians had abandoned both the measuring system and the use of copper for writing, someone between 150 BC and 70 AD found or recreated a piece of copper, fashioned it into the right format, and began to hammer a listing of treasure locations. Whoever did so, went obviously to great trouble to accomplish this task and once again underlines how important the list of sites mentioned in the scroll were. In fact, I would argue that the effort that went into its creation, almost exceeds the value of the precious metals itself, suggesting that the treasure also had a more than material value.
The central question of the Copper Scroll remains: where to dig?